December 25, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “47 Ronin”


47 RONIN:  Not Even For Free – Another Big-Budget Hollywood Folly, Gift-Wrapped For Christmas

47 RONIN blows into town on unusually fetid winds of bad buzz.  It began filming something like 2 1/2 years ago under the direction of first-timer Carl Rinsch, who hails from commercials (naturally), and then had to be significantly reshot, at a resulting cost of around $200M (plus another $100M+ for worldwide marketing); its opening was consequently postponed for a year or more–and then scheduled squarely against the even bigger fantasy-adventure Hobbit 2; it stars Keanu Reeves, who hasn’t had a hit to call his own since The Matrix series ended a decade ago; and when Universal opened it in Japan, where the story is set and where all the actors except Reeves are based, the country rejected it like day-old sushi.  After all that, if you see it, you might just shrug and say, “Hell, it’s not that bad.”

But it’s still plenty bad.

One of the reasons the Japanese have rejected 47 Ronin so definitively is probably because the centuries-old story (based on fact, although legend has been added to the tale over the years)–already the subject of several homegrown films, including one directed by Kenji Mizoguchi–has never had a place before this for the character played by Keanu Reeves.  He’s been inserted, for obvious box office reasons, as Kai, a “half-breed” (his father, we’re told, was an English sailor) who was initially raised by some kind of forest demons and then adopted by the local Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), whereupon he became a rival of Asano’s chief samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a vague love interest (they share demure glances) of Asano’s daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki).

Oishi is the real protagonist of the “47 Ronin” legend, the one who decides, after Asano has met his death as a result of the treachery of Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), and Kira’s in-house witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), and after Asano’s samurai have been stripped of their honor by being declared “ronin,” or roving mercenaries without a noble patron, to gather together the ronin against the orders of the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in order to defeat Kira.  In this version, though, Kai becomes Oishi’s prominent sidekick, the one Oishi has to turn to in order to deal with the supernatural forces arrayed against the ronin.  (Reportedly, a fair amount of the reshooting was to beef up Reeves’s part.)  The filmmakers did keep the grim ending of the tale, in which the ronin have to pay for disobeying their shogun, although they’ve romanticized it in a few sappy ways.

It’s unclear just how much of the final version of 47 Ronin is Rinsch’s, since there seem to have been many hands in the editing room.  But based on what’s here, he doesn’t have a distinctive visual touch, and he’s unable to shape the script (credited to Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini–although in a production like this, there were doubtless drafts by others as well) in a compelling way or give it a workable rhythm.  There’s scale to the movie–for $200M, there’d better be–but the soundstage sets, even with John Mathieson (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) behind the camera, look that way, and the CG is always a notch behind state of the art.  The acting is undistinguished from start to finish.  Kikuchi camps it up as the witch (she’s been given one bright blue eye and one brown one, so her evil can easily be picked out in a crowd), and even though her performance isn’t much, at least it makes an impression, which is more than can be said of Asano’s Kira.  Reeves, low-key at the best of times, is barely present, and although it’s very possible that some of Asano’s performance was left on the cutting room floor in order to emphasize Reeves, what’s left is blah.  There isn’t a single character who does anything surprising or says anything that suggests a new side to their character in the entire (overly slow) 119 minutes of its running time.

The biggest problem with 47 Ronin is that we’ve seen all its tricks before, in one place or another.  The villages and forests are Middle-Earth with a Japanese accent, the mechanical warrior who Kira sends into battle was better in The Wolverine, the dragon that Mizuki transforms into for the climactic sequence is a Clash of the Titans level monster.  The movie isn’t striking enough even to be terrible (it’s laughable only in little moments, like when Reeves, supposedly trying to hide his identity, puts on a mask that completely exposes his Caucasian eyes, the easiest way for anyone to identify him).  It’s just the latest in Hollywood’s continuing line of overproduced, underwritten, assembled for the foreign marketplace bores.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."